I recently read the document "Old Japanese Loanwords" by Frellesvig, where he states:

OJ kamwi ~ kamu- 'spirit, deity' may well be borrowed from an ancestor of Ainu kamuy 'bear; deity'.

Ever since I heard of the word "kamuy", I figured there was a connection to 神. But why do we believe that it is likeliest for 神 to be borrowed from "kamuy", rather than "kamuy" being borrowed from 神, or both of them coming from a common substratum? (Or, if this is actually a controversial stance, what is the evidence on which Frellesvig bases his belief?)

  • 2
    "may well be borrowed" has a meaning very different from "it is likeliest"
    – macraf
    Dec 14, 2016 at 8:03
  • gogen-allguide.com/ka/kami.html says that the origin is unknown (and only gives the usual reasoning against 神 and 上 being cognates).
    – Earthliŋ
    Dec 14, 2016 at 13:12
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    Unlike Old Chinese, Paekche, Sanskrit, etc, there are hardly any written records of Ainu that survive that could confirm this. I think the use of borrow here is deceptive. Comparing modern Ainu with a word that has been around in Japanese for a long time, it's quite difficult to make the claim that one is borrowed for sure. As you indicated they could have a shared root and developed independently after or they could completely unrelated.
    – Sudachi
    Dec 14, 2016 at 15:05
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    That passage also appears in A History of the Japanese Language (2010), but he adds a parenthetical: "It is difficult to identify loanwords in OJ from Ainu, perhaps with one notable and remarkable exception: OJ kamwi ~ kamu- 'spirit, deity' may well be borrowed from an ancestor of Ainu kamuy 'bear; deity' (although the opposite direction of borrowing has also been proposed)." (p.145, emphasis added) Note "perhaps" and "may well be".
    – user1478
    Dec 14, 2016 at 18:15
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    If a borrowing, the opposite direction seems more likely to me, occurring at the point in OJP when the nominal particle い was fusing with those nouns that used it. There's some evidence for 手{た} + い ⇒ /te/, 目{ま} + い ⇒ /me/, 木{こ} + い ⇒ /ki/, and for 神{かむ} + い ⇒ /kami/. Frellesvig himself mentions the possibility of い fusion in his paper "Old Japanese Particles" (search for "particle i"). Dec 15, 2016 at 2:18

1 Answer 1


Archaeological Data
The Ainu people are descended primarily from the Jōmon people and secondarily from the Yayoi. Modern Japanese people are descended primarily from the Yayoi, secondarily from the Jōmon, and tertiarily from ethnic Koreans. There is still debate whether the Yayoi emigrated to the Japanese Archipelago from Mumun period Korea or from the Yuyue State in Eastern Zhou period China. In either case, neither group's religious culture was as similar to modern Shinto as Jōmon & Ainu animism is.

Keep in mind that 氏神{うじがみ} are tied to specific locations which would mean that the emigrants (Yayoi/Japanese) either established new sacred places in Japan or the natives (Jōmon/Ainu) had already established certain areas as sacred.

Linguistic Data
The kanji predates the Yayoi by several hundred years, showing up in oracle bone script.

[かみ] often appears in compounds as /kamu/ (modern /kaɴ/), indicating that /kami/ is a bound or fused form deriving from */kamu.i/. Note that this final i may be the Old Japanese emphatic nominative particle い (i), likely cognate with Korean nominative particle 이 (i). Such fusion has occurred in other Japanese terms, such as 目 (me, “eye”, from ma + i) or 酒 (sake, “saké, liquor”, from saka + i).


Even with the combination of the above evidence we can't definitively say that かみ originated as カムイ, but it is the most likely scenario given the available data.

Please comment if I've missed anything above.

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